I read a play this week that confused and frustrated me. In my mind (while reading), I kept asking: “Why are the characters acting this way?” As I continued to read, I realized that the frustration and confusion was because the characters weren’t sharing with each other what was really going on, what they were thinking and feeling.
What were the characters doing? They were acting out (verbally hostile, getting drunk, etc.) in an attempt to cover up, ignore, or deny emotions and thoughts that they were uncomfortable expressing.
The protagonist, was verbally hostile to family and friends, didn’t respond to direct questions and often, would hide behind her bedroom door. The other characters spent time trying to interpret what the protagonist was feeling, talking about her rather than to her, and assuming they knew what she was experiencing.
As I continued reading, I realized the protagonist was most likely deeply sad and confused. My assumption is that she was feeling a variety of emotions and either wasn’t taking the time to sort through and explore each emotion or didn’t know how. It is a common theme.
I reflected on how often we humans struggle to name what we are feeling, to explore the murky depths of the emotions we label “negative.” I remember a time in my life when I was afraid if I opened that black box of shame, hurt, and humiliation that I carried around in my chest that I would collapse.
As if to open and expose it to the light would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s box. I worried that all sorts of dark emotions would come swirling out to surround me with a viscous smoke that would take over my existence.
It’s as if I was afraid that if I felt the sadness, fear, or pain I was harboring, I would never be able to experience delight or joy. Or so I thought. So, we plaster over our fears and wounds with activity, avoidance, and emotionally mis-aligned behaviors, like the characters in the play.
Here’s what I’ve learned about emotions.
If you shut down one emotion (e.g. fear, anger, shame), your ability to experience the entire range of emotions becomes limited. It’s a slippery slope that eventually leads to numbness.
What we avoid or resist, persists. Have you ever tried NOT to worry about something? Or have you tried NOT to anticipate a happy occasion?
True emotional reactions physically only last for a few seconds. We perpetuate, extend and enhance the emotion by what we say to ourselves, whether the emotion is “positive” or “negative.” Pay attention to your self-talk when you experience an emotion.
If we explore our emotions with compassion, it is easier to unpack what we are experiencing. Shame may be hiding behind anger. Frustration may be disguising fear.
By treating ourselves (with compassion and care) like we would a friend or family member who is suffering, we can open the portal to view and explore our emotions. Instead of denying, avoiding, or resisting an uncomfortable emotion, try accepting it with kindness and curiosity.
Rather than demand “Why am I feeling this way!?” try “What might be behind this? What am I not listening to?” If we treat our uncomfortable emotions (and ourselves) with kindness and gentleness, we create the opportunity to explore what we truly care about and begin to address what matters.
If you are afraid that you will be overcome with negative emotions, find a therapist or counselor to work with on this journey. The scary path isn’t so scary when we have someone to guide us as we walk.
By being willing to experience our “negative” emotions, we can potentially open new avenues for exploration, uncover hidden strengths, and develop more compassion for others, and most importantly, for ourselves. I choose to experience the full range of emotions, not just the “positive” ones.